Punctuation is Your Friend

From the Washington Post’s review of The Hunger Games:

The stoic, impassive Katniss threads her way through the Capitol with the dubious help of a chaperone named Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), whose kooky, fin de siecle style includes white-powdered wigs, candy-colored costumes and rosebud lips, and a mentor named Haymitch Abernathy, played by Woody Harrelson in a soddenly bravura turn that somehow combines his two most recent roles, the corrupt cop in “Rampart” and a world-weary political consultant in “Game Change.”

Read that a couple of times. Doesn’t it sound like Haymitch is part of Effie Trinket’s style? Pull it out a bit: Effie’s style includes wigs, costumes and lips, and a mentor. (Also awkward: the lack of an Oxford comma makes “costumes and lips” a creepy kind of pairing in Effie’s arsenal.)

The simplest way to fix the sentence is to change that last comma in the Effie series to a semi-colon. If you have lists within lists, the semi-colon signals to your reader Hey! We’re back to the first tier of items! I don’t have a fancy way of diagramming the sentence here, but let’s abuse some bullet points to illustrate, shall we?

Katniss has the help of:

  • Effie Trinket, whose style includes
    • wigs
    • costumes
    • lips
  • Haymitch Abernathy

Little bit clearer?

It could also be accomplished with dashes:

The stoic, impassive Katniss threads her way through the Capitol with the dubious help of a chaperone named Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) — whose kooky, fin de siecle style includes white-powdered wigs, candy-colored costumes and rosebud lips — and a mentor named Haymitch Abernathy, played by Woody Harrelson[…]

Normally, you could also use a parenthetical phrase the same way you’d use the dashes, but there’s a slight problem here. Take a look:

The stoic, impassive Katniss threads her way through the Capitol with the dubious help of a chaperone named Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), (whose kooky, fin de siecle style includes white-powdered wigs, candy-colored costumes and rosebud lips), and a mentor named Haymitch Abernathy, played by Woody Harrelson […]

The parentheses are a bit harder to work in since the actress’ name is also encapsulated in a pair of them. If you were to stick “Elizabeth Banks” in with the description of the style, the meaning will change all over again and read as though Elizabeth Banks’ style comprises wigs, costumes, and rosebud lips. Even separating them out like I’ve done above (which looks awful to me), I can see why they wouldn’t want to use that particular trick of punctuation.

Anyway, costumes and lips and missing semi-colons aside, the original sentence is, in fact, grammatically correct.

But it could be better.

There’s your grammar lesson for the day, cats ‘n’ kittens.

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